Cloud cover over Newgrange in Co Meath cleared just in time for the sun to illuminate the ancient chamber on the Winter Solstice.
About 50 people were inside when the sunlight filled up the Neolithic tomb’s main passageway at about 8.50am yesterday, the shortest day of the year.
More than 200 people, some drumming and waving flags, were outside to sample the atmosphere.
About half an hour earlier it appeared dense clouds would spoil the occasion but brisk southerly winds helped to clear a path for the sun.
It was the first time since 2007 that the sun shone through the chamber’s roof box, located roughly 2.5m from the entrance, with an orange glow reflecting off the structure’s stone surfaces to highlight the spirals, triangles, concentric circles and arcs carved to decorate the tomb thousands of years ago.
The monument’s solar alignment, first documented in 1967 by archaeologist Michael J O’Kelly, is now an established part of the Christmas calendar.
A few of those on hand remarked that just as the State got its economic independence back, the sun had returned to Newgrange.
This year 30,000 people applied for one of the 50 places available to witness the solstice from inside the tomb. The site receives about 230,000 visitors a year, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the public’s appetite as the authorities limit the daily footfall for conservation reasons.
Among the 50 inside the chamber were the six winners of the Winter Solstice Children's Art Competition, run by the Office of Public Works, and Minister of State Brian Hayes, who described it as "a memorable day".
For more than 4,000 years, Newgrange lay hidden from the world until Scottish landowner Charles Campbell, who had inherited the land after the Battle of the Boyne, sent his labourers out looking for building stone in 1699. They uncovered the site, thinking at first it was a cave.
The purpose of passage tombs such as Newgrange, and its sister sites in Knowth and Dowth, is still debated. The Neolithic era stretches from 10,000 BC to 2,000 BC, and is marked by the introduction of farming.